Were the Gospels Written and Circulated Anonymously? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

One of the most common refrains we hear from skeptics is that the Gospels are anonymous community documents that are simply collections of folklore and legend. They were never meant to record eyewitness testimony about the life of Jesus. Are they correct?

Not according to biblical scholar Richard Bauckham. In his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham builds a strong case against this view. First, he summarizes the skeptical view:

The assumption that Jesus traditions circulated anonymously in the early church and that therefore the Gospels in which they were gathered and recorded were also originally anonymous was very widespread in twentieth-century Gospels scholarship. It was propagated by the form critics as a corollary of their use of the model of folklore, which is passed down anonymously by communities. The Gospels, they thought, were folk literature, similarly anonymous.

This use of the model of folklore has been discredited, . . . , partly because there is a great difference between folk traditions passed down over centuries and the short span of time — less than a lifetime — that elapsed before Gospels were written. But it is remarkable how tenacious has been the idea that not only the traditions but the Gospels themselves were originally anonymous.

Bauckham argues that there are “three main reasons for rejecting this view of both the traditions and the Gospels:”

(1) In three cases — Luke, John, and Matthew — the evidence of the Gospel itself shows that it was not intended to be anonymous. All four Gospels are anonymous in the formal sense that the author’s name does not appear in the text of the work itself, only in the title (which we will discuss below). But this does not mean that they were intentionally anonymous.

Many ancient works were anonymous in the same formal sense, and the name may not even appear in the surviving title of the work. For example, this is true of Lucian’s Life of Demonax (Dēmōnactos bios), which as a bios (ancient biography) is generically comparable with the Gospels. Yet Lucian speaks throughout in the first person and obviously expects his readers to know who he is.

Such works would often have been circulated in the first instance among friends or acquaintances of the author who would know who the author was from the oral context in which the work was first read. Knowledge of authorship would be passed on when copies were made for other readers, and the name would be noted, with a brief title, on the outside of the scroll or on a label affixed to the scroll. In denying that the Gospels were originally anonymous, our intention is to deny that they were first presented as works without authors.

In part 2 of this series, we continue with Bauckham’s case against the anonymity of the Gospels.